September 30, 1998
The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth. That’s the title of a new book that describes the western world’s love affair with beaches. For over a century, we have flocked to sandy shores to escape summer’s heat, to seek spiritual and artistic inspiration, and above all, to have fun. Sadly, many of our beaches are anything but paradises these days. Contaminated by human sewage, they have become sources of sickness rather than delight.
A friend recently told me about her young daughter’s field trip to a beach on the Toronto Islands. The children in the nursery school class, along with their teachers and parents, made the ferry journey across the harbour. When they arrived, they ran happily into the waves. Then one parent saw the sign: Warning. Polluted Water. Swim at Your Own Risk. Imagine the children’s disappointment in learning that their long-anticipated adventure was to be abruptly cancelled. And imagine their dismay when their teacher explained what thwarted them: The water had “poo” in it.
Toronto is by no means alone in releasing untreated sewage into its waters. Human waste contaminates lakes, rivers, and oceans from coast to coast. Health authorities routinely close beaches. And swimmers have learned that even beaches that are not closed can make them sick. As the radio host lamented during a recent interview with me on Montreal’s CJAD, most of the Quebeckers he knows wouldn’t even think of going to a beach unless it was on an island in the Caribbean. “Around here,” he complained, “beaches are associated with problems.” Problems plague many of our coastal beaches as well; I’ve written to you in the past about contaminated waters in Halifax and Vancouver.
Another summer has come and gone, along with another round of beach closings. How many more summers will we have to live with this disgrace? How much longer will provincial and federal regulators look the other way as municipal sewage utilities violate environmental and health standards? And when will we stop accepting this outrage as inevitable?
The answer, I fear, is that as things now stand, our governments will continue to allow sewage systems to pollute: Governments simply do not have the expertise, the money, or the political will to bring our sewage systems up to snuff. We will indeed require vast amounts of all three to clean up our waters. The National Round Table on Environment and Economy estimates that we will need to invest up to $90 billion over the next 20 years in our water and sewage systems.
Yet there is hope. Private water companies are able and willing to invest in desperately needed infrastructure. And a number of water companies have proven that they can do more with less. In Indianapolis, for example, a private partnership has reduced operating costs at the city’s two sewage treatment plants by 44 per cent – savings that have allowed the city to invest US$90 million to reconstruct a sewer system that was on the verge of collapse. The private managers also reduced violations of water quality standards from seven a year under city management to one.
But bringing in private expertise and investment won’t automatically solve our sewage pollution problem. Craig Golding, an Environment Probe researcher who has just completed a study of France’s experience with partially privatized sewage services, notes that sewage pollution remains common there. The biggest problem is that municipal governments retain ownership of the sewage systems even when they contract out operations to the private sector. Although regulators don’t hesitate to prosecute private polluters, they are loathe to go after the municipalities that own polluting systems; the different levels of government are simply too cozy with one another.
Craig’s study confirms what we have found to be true here in Canada: When governments own, finance, or operate sewage systems, they often fail to regulate them strictly. They look after their buddies and their own bottom lines. Distancing governments from operations gives regulators a freer hand to stand up for citizens and the environment. We are now working to develop a sustainable model for privatization – one which fully separates government regulators from private operators. We are also working to develop a sound regulatory regime – one which will encourage regulators to crack down hard on polluters who despoil our waters. We are determined to avoid a situation, such as that in France, where a few private water companies profit, with the government’s blessing, from polluting lakes, rivers, or the sea.
Please send us a generous donation to further our work to bring back our beaches. With your support, we can, I am confident, reestablish earthly paradises on our shores.